This post has been edited to clarify the difference between unobligated funds and awarded funds.
Sometimes figuring out how to come up with the local match for a stretch of sidewalk or fund a Walking School Bus program feels like the equivalent of looking under the couch cushions for money. This month, we’re taking a look at Safe Routes to School legacy funds and the $103 million remaining for Safe Routes to School infrastructure and non-infrastructure projects. Is your state one of the states that will find money under the proverbial couch cushions? (Spoiler alert: there is one state with over $16 million remaining to invest in Safe Routes to School!) Read on to find out and to learn what to do with these legacy Safe Routes to School funds.
First, a quick history lesson/reminder: the federal Safe Routes to School program created by SAFETEA-LU provided funds to each state specifically for Safe Routes to School from 2005-2012. Unlike Transportation Alternatives funds, which get returned to the federal government if not obligated within four years, leftover Safe Routes to School funds remain available until expended. We refer to these as “legacy” funds because the program no longer has dedicated funding, but the funding associated with the program remains until a state spends it.
We stopped tracking these legacy Safe Routes to School funds in 2018 when there was about $150 million remaining in Safe Routes to School funds. Fast forward to early 2022, and there is still $103 million in dedicated federal Safe Routes to School funding, that has not been obligated. It is important to note that while funding remains available, it totals less than ten percent of overall federal Safe Routes to School funds. Most states did a fantastic job implementing Safe Routes to School programs, and every state has impactful work to show from when they received dedicated federal funding. When we stopped tracking the obligation of these funds in 2018, 87 percent of Safe Routes to School funds had been obligated, and our analysis at the end of 2021 shows that states are making progress and have now obligated 91 percent of Safe Routes to School funds. Obligation is a technical term reflecting the amount the state has expended or contracted to spend on awarded projects. It measures a state's progress in holding funding competitions, selecting projects, and moving forward on implementation of projects. When we look at the amount of unobligated legacy Safe Routes to School funds, there are two possibilities for what is going on with these dollars. One option is that they have not been obligated, but they have been awarded, which means they have been committed to a project, but the dollars have not been legally committed yet. The timeline from award to obligation can take several years. The second option is that they have not yet been awarded and they are available to spend. In that case, there is money left to spend, and it will remain available until spent. As such, we would like to make sure states, Safe Routes to School practitioners, and advocates know it’s there and what to do with it.
Here are the states with legacy Safe Routes to School funding balances.Looking at the “Percent Obligated” column will tell you what percentage of your state’s Safe Routes to School funds have been obligated, and you’ll see that most states have excelled and really spent the funds down. The column “Percent Obligated Change since FY18” will show you if your state has made progress spending these funds since 2018, though a negative number in that column means your state de-obligated funds and now has funds available (looking at you, Alaska!). The final column “Remaining Legacy SRTS Funds” lets you know how much money your state has remaining unobligated to spend on Safe Routes to School. The first step is connecting with your state department of transportation to learn whether these funds have been awarded, meaning they are not available to spend, or if they have not been awarded, in which case, they remain available until spent.
If your state has unawarded, unobligated Safe Routes to School legacy funds, we have some ideas for how to make the most of those remaining Safe Routes to School funds:
- Hire a Safe Routes to School coordinator at the state level to run statewide Safe Routes to School programming, planning, coordination, and project administration.
- Fund Safe Routes to School infrastructure projects – when using these legacy Safe Routes to School funds, they can be done entirely with federal funds -- no local match required!
- Invest in Safe Routes to School non-infrastructure programs statewide, or invest in local areas that could benefit from engagement, education, and encouragement.
- Use the legacy Safe Routes to School funds as local match requirement for Safe Routes to School projects funded by Transportation Alternatives Program funds. As states prepare to compete out historic amounts of Transportation Alternatives Program funding, we anticipate that the local match may be an impediment for some communities. Offering to use the legacy Safe Routes to School funds as match for TAP applications focused on Safe Routes to School could incentivize communities to prioritize safe mobility for school-aged kids.
How has your state been spending down its legacy Safe Routes to School funds? Do you have creative ideas to share with others? Let us know, and we can share out your examples. For additional questions on what expenses are eligible uses of these legacy Safe Routes to School funds, consult the Federal Highway Administration’s SAFETEA-LU guidance on eligible expenses for federal Safe Routes to School funds.